Buddhist-Christian Studies 21.1 (2001) 51-56
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Readiness: Preparing for the Path
Asbury Theological Seminary
One important lesson I learned from studying the way early Buddhist monks practiced the spiritual life was the lesson of readiness. 1 Before a person can make any progress on the spiritual path of his or her choice, they must be ready to undertake the path. I have come to see readiness as the foundational step on any religion's spiritual path.
Let me tell you how I came to this understanding in the specific case of Theravada Buddhism, and then I will explain how I have generalized that understanding to my own Christian tradition and beyond.
Buddhaghosa, the great early commentator on and synthesizer of the Pali Buddhist tradition, divided his classic work on the dhamma, theVisuddhimagga, into three stages: sila, or morality; samadhi, or concentration; and panna, or wisdom. 2 It is clear from his exposition that Buddhaghosa considered sila (morality) foundational to the spiritual path: "When a wise man, established well in morality,/ Develops concentration and wisdom,/ Then as a monk ardent and sagacious / He succeeds in disentangling this tangle." 3 Buddhaghosa advocated the moral life, as the foundation for the spiritual life. Until one establishes sila, or morality, progress in meditation was problematic. 4
Of course, it is important to understand what Buddhaghosa meant by morality. In the Visuddhimagga he defined it this way: "Morality is intentionally chosen states present in one who abstains from killing, etc. or in one who fulfills the practice of theVinaya." 5 For Buddhaghosa, consciously choosing not to do certain things and then not doing them creates predictable states in a person that collectively create a condition he called morality. Those states of being are required in order to go on to attain the higher states of spiritual practice.
Sila took various forms and content. For the layperson it meant following as best one could five basic rules: no killing, no stealing, no lying, faithfulness in relationships, and abstaining from alcoholic beverages. 6 For the novice monk (and spiritually advanced laypersons), five additional rules were added: no untimely meals; no dancing, singing, music, or theater; no flowers, perfumes, and jewelry; no high seats; and no handling of gold and silver. 7 But sila for the monk was also defined by a longer list of 227 rules, called the Patimokkha, and narrative and commentary added to those rules, together called theVinaya-Pitaka. 8 [End Page 51]
The content of sila was not static--or perhaps it is better to say that it had a certain amount of flexibility. But it was implicitly acknowledged in the early texts that no matter what the exact form morality took, the life devoted to morality took effort. A person had to want to follow it. Thus, a decision had to be made to practice sila in preparation for samadhi and panna.
The nature of this decision, what I have come to call readiness, was what interested me most about the Buddhist spiritual path. The Pali texts divide readiness into two component parts: (1) viriya, or energy, and (2) saddha, or confidence (sometimes translated as faith, a confusing translation because the word "faith" is so closely associated with Christian doctrine and experience, where it means something quite different from saddha). In the Pali texts, then, these two elements are often paired in passages describing requirements for engaging dhamma. For example, both confidence and energy are listed as two of the five factors leading to success in spiritual wrestling. 9 In this passage in the Digha Nikaya, confidence (saddha) is defined as "believing in the Buddha's Enlightenment--thus is the Exalted One: he is Arahant fully awakened, wisdom he has, and righteousness; he is the Well-Farer; he has knowledge of the worlds; he is the supreme driver of men willing to be tamed; the teacher of devas and men; the Awakened and Exalted One." 10 Energy (viriya) is defined as "maintaining a flow of energy in eliminating wrong states of mind and evoking good states, vigorous, strongly reaching...